LGBTQ South Florida

HIV/AIDS activists: 27th annual AIDS Walk Miami an opportunity to reach young people

Edwin Serrano, left, a graduate assistant for LGBTQA Initiatives at Florida International University, speaks with sophomores Willy Silva, center, and Joel Batista, at FIU's World AIDS Day 2013 resource fair.
Edwin Serrano, left, a graduate assistant for LGBTQA Initiatives at Florida International University, speaks with sophomores Willy Silva, center, and Joel Batista, at FIU's World AIDS Day 2013 resource fair. Miami Herald File

For a quarter century, Miami attorney Richard Milstein has almost always been top fundraiser at the annual AIDS Walk Miami in South Beach.

“Every year I say this is going to be my last year, but it never happens,” says Milstein, a longtime LGBT leader in South Florida distressed his hometown is the nation’s ground zero for newly diagnosed HIV cases.

“Miami is No. 1 for infections,” said Milstein, referring to recent reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once again, so far, Milstein and husband Eric Hankin are this year’s leading AIDS Walk fundraisers. The 27th annual walk begins 9 a.m. Sunday, April 26, at Miami Beach Convention Center.

The Milstein-Hankin team has set its 2015 goal at $35,000. So far, it has received more than $32,000 in pledges.

Milstein believes that since 1990 he has helped raise up to $600,000 for AIDS Walk Miami, which benefits Care Resource, one of South Florida’s leading HIV/AIDS healthcare organizations.

Last year, about 1,400 walkers raised $223,789.57 for Care Resource, according to organization spokesman Jon Welsh.

Milstein, 68, a partner in law firm Akerman, says the HIV pandemic crosses generations in South Florida and that it’s more important than ever to reach out to the highest-risk populations.

“We have the youth we have to talk to. We have the minority groups, no matter what their ages are,” Milstein said. “And we have the elderly who are not protecting themselves, people who are not part of the LGBT community. They just figure they don’t give a damn, they’re old enough.”

Men who have sex with men are still the highest risk group for contracting HIV, according to the CDC.

Younger men often act on “impulse,” seeking “that instant reward,” said Edwin Serrano, a 23-year-old graduate assistant at Florida International University’s LGBTQA Initiatives program.

And “social media apps like Grindr have blown that out the window,” making fast, anonymous sex easier to find than ever before, Serrano said. “It’s a now or never kind of thing. There’s that lack of education in a sense that AIDS is still out there.”

More than 30 years into the pandemic, “there is [still] a taboo, a stigma about HIV and AIDS,” Serrano said.

Serrano is perplexed by his peers’ apparent lack of HIV/AIDS education. “Condoms are everywhere, to be honest. So why are people not using them? That’s what I don’t understand,” he said.

More than 50,000 students attend FIU. Serrano believes up to 10 percent are LGBT.

And in two years working on campus, not a single student has told Serrano he was recently infected by HIV.

“The students who come to me do not reveal their health status,” he said. “They tell me about their family lives, identity issues and homeless issues.”

A team of about 10 FIU students plans to participate in this year’s AIDS Walk Miami.

Dr. Jaime Franco, a Care Resource board member, said the greatest challenge is reaching young people who “didn’t come of age during the heyday” of the usually-fatal AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ‘90s.

“They’ve become desensitized” to talk of HIV testing and safe sex, said Franco, 43, an assistant professor of the Division of Medicine & Society at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Although there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, medicines today can help many patients lead normal lives, their viruses becoming virtually undetectable in medical testing.

Many young people today view HIV as a chronic health condition rather than a death sentence.

“It’s a mixed bag,” according to Franco, who said many young men newly diagnosed with HIV are not surprised they are infected.

“They believe ‘I’ll take this medication and it will be chronic disease like diabetes. I’m not going to die from it,’” he said.

Also, many young gay men and others at higher risk for HIV have begun using a medication called Truvada that prevents infection. “Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day,” according to the CDC.

“I’ll engage in risky behavior and take a pill afterward,” is how Franco puts it.

Franco believes South Florida has the nation’s highest HIV infection rate because of our “transient community.”

“People come from all over the world for vacation,” he said. “And with that relaxed attitude comes relaxed behaviors.”

If you go

Care Resource’s 27th annual AIDS Walk Miami is Sunday, April 26.

On-site registration begins 8 a.m. at Miami Beach Convention Center, Hall D, 1901 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach. Opening ceremonies are at 8:15 a.m. The 5K (3.1-mile) walk begins 9 a.m., followed by a post-walk party noon at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr.

Registration is $25. Fees are waived for walkers ages 5 through 18.

Miami-based TV personality David Bromstad is this year’s grand marshal.